Rickettsiae closely related to the Malish strain, the reference Rickettsia conorii strain, include Indian tick typhus rickettsia (ITTR), Israeli spotted fever rickettsia (ISFR), and Astrakhan fever rickettsia (AFR). Although closely related genotypically, they are distinct serotypically. Using multilocus sequence typing (MLST), we have recently found that distinct serotypes may not always represent distinct species within the Rickettsia genus. We investigated the possibility of classifying rickettsiae closely related to R. conorii as R. conorii subspecies as proposed by the ad hoc committee on reconciliation of approaches to bacterial systematics. For this, we first estimated their genotypic variability by using MLST including the sequencing of 5 genes, of 31 rickettsial isolates closely related to R. conorii strain Malish, 1 ITTR isolate, 2 isolates and 3 tick amplicons of AFR, and 2 ISFR isolates. Then, we selected a representative of each MLST genotype and used multi-spacer typing (MST) and mouse serotyping to estimate their degree of taxonomic relatedness.
Among the 39 isolates or tick amplicons studied, four MLST genotypes were identified: i) the Malish type; ii) the ITTR type; iii) the AFR type; and iv) the ISFR type. Among these four MLST genotypes, the pairwise similarity in nucleotide sequence varied from 99.8 to 100%, 99.4 to 100%, 98.2 to 99.8%, 98.4 to 99.8%, and 99.2 to 99.9% for 16S rDNA, gltA, ompA, ompB, and sca4 genes, respectively. Representatives of the 4 MLST types were also classified within four types using MST genotyping as well as mouse serotyping.
Although homogeneous genotypically, strains within the R. conorii species show MST genotypic, serotypic, and epidemio-clinical dissimilarities. We, therefore, propose to modify the nomenclature of the R. conorii species through the creation of subspecies. We propose the names R. conorii subsp. conorii subsp. nov. (type strain = Malish, ATCC VR-613), R. conorii subspecies indica subsp. nov. (type strain = ATCC VR-597), R. conorii subspecies caspia subsp. nov. (type strain = A-167), and R. conorii subspecies israelensis subsp. nov. (type strain = ISTT CDC1). The description of R. conorii is emended to accomodate the four subspecies.